On October 11th, World Sight Day, the World Health Organization will raise awareness about visual impairment around the world, as well as their Vision 2020 initiative aimed at eliminating avoidable blindness by 2020. WHO estimates that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired and about 39 million of those individuals are permanently blind. However, up to 80% of these cases are due to preventable causes like cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes, trachoma and onchocerciasis. The last two causes on that list may not sound familiar – trachoma and onchocerciasis are two types of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), diseases that have historically received little attention despite affecting 1.4 billion people throughout the world and right here in the U.S. On World Sight Day, we must not only raise awareness about these diseases, but of the need for additional funding and research to eliminate NTDs once and for all.
As the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness, trachoma results in an estimated $2.9 billion in lost productivity each year. Trachoma is a parasitic infection that mainly affects poor, rural communities in Africa and Asia. WHO has established key strategies for eliminating the disease, including surgery and antibiotic treatments for affected individuals and educational campaigns about the importance of facial cleanliness. International partnerships between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Trachoma Initiative and pharmaceutical companies have implemented these programs and helped to reduce trachoma cases from 149 million in 1997 to 60 million in 2008. Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is the second leading cause of infectious blindness and can result in over $30 million in economic losses each year. Onchocerciasis is a parasitic infection transmitted through black sand flies and primarily affects river communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Through collaboration with global partners like WHO and USAID, the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control has focused on insecticide spraying and administering drugs in high risk communities since 1995. Overall, this strategy has reduced cases of river blindness by 73%, down to an estimated 37 million cases today.
This year on World Sight Day, we must celebrate the progress that has been made, while recognizing that there is clearly more work to be done. Current programs can be difficult to implement in rural areas and vaccines do not exist for either of these diseases. Additional investment in NTD research to develop new prevention and treatment methods will be an important component for Vision 2020’s efforts to eliminate preventable blindness around the world.
–Morgan McCloskey, global health intern